Thou Hast Got No Alibi

by Sara Clarke

At some point when I was a kid, somebody gave our family a Sister Wendy coffee table book on The History Of Painting. I would flip through the book looking at pictures, lingering longer on all the images of naked people as I got older.

In addition to the nudity, there was weird Medieval fashion (who knew there were so many ways to fold a wimple?), creepy religious iconography, and my first exposure to abstract art from a non-philistine perspective. I can also thank this book for my lingering fascination with the work of Lucian Freud (NSFW on account of breast, singular), which apparently was the height of Really Important Art according to Sister Wendy circa 1990. Or maybe it was just the naked people.

But the longer I spent contemplating the hundreds of images in this book, the more I was struck by the fact that painters didn’t figure out how to paint babies until like the seventeenth century. This seemed especially sad considering how they seemed to gravitate towards portraits of the Baby Jesus. I mean, a career spent painting babies and this is as good as it gets:

Giovanni Bellini, The Virgin with the Standing Child, Who Embraces His Mother

You had your Babies Are Like Grownups Drawn At The Wrong Scale mistakes, your Anatomical Impossibilities, your Awkward Holy Family Photos. I wondered if most Renaissance painters had never actually seen a baby. I really leaned toward this explanation when I started noticing how many of the nursing Madonnas had breasts like pool cues attached at the neck. Clearly none of these dudes had ever seen a boob, so it’s unlikely they had children crawling around the floors of their studios.

Eventually I grew up, took some art history classes and went to some museums. I got more into Pollock, Basquiat, stuff like that. I moved to New York and didn’t need my main exposure to the arts to come from a book based on a TV show made by a nun. So I forgot about the ugly Renaissance babies of my youth.

Until some genius on the internet came up with the Ugly Renaissance Babies tumblr, for which I am eternally grateful. Now I can contemplate hideous visages of the Christ Child from the comfort of my couch of a weekend afternoon, beer in hand. My god, the twenty-first century is an amazing time to be alive.

(Tip o’ the hat to Hyperallergic, which reminded me of the existence of the tumblr in question and that I have an artsy-pants blog now and HOW CAN I NOT TALK ABOUT THE UGLY RENAISSANCE BABIES TUMBLR?)